Okay, today, we begin Copyright 101. About once a week during the month of April, we'll address the subject.
Again, the disclaimer: I am not an attorney and am not pretending to be one here. The information contained in my blogs on this subject are based on my own practical experience and on information gleaned from research. If you have a copyright issue, consult the U.S. Copyright Office at www.copyright.gov/ or a copyright attorney.
That being said, there is a wealth of information available on copyright. Anyone in the creative arts needs to have at least a working knowledge of the subject, especially since there is a lot of misinformation out there.
Let's begin with what copyright is. Copyright is the protection afforded by a country to its artists (including literary, performance, dramatic, musical, architectural and visual arts) for the original works they create. These works can be both published and unpublished. In the United States, the copyright protection begins the moment the artist puts the work into tangible form (manuscript, canvas, film, musical score, computer program, architectural plans, whatever).
In the U.S., you cannot copyright an idea, fact or invention. Patents protect inventions and discoveries (which was why the son could not copyright that blow dryer in Question #8; it would have required a patent). As an aside, part of why "The DaVinci Code" case is attracting such attention is that the plaintiffs wrote a non-fiction book to which they are claiming copyright over facts (that Jesus was married and had children). Since this case is being tried in England, it has the potential to change copyright law in that country if the judge rules in favor of the plaintiffs.
While an American artist does not have to register with the U.S. Copyright Office to be protected, he/she cannot sue for copyright infringement unless the work in question is registered, which is why registration is recommended. This is part of the reason why mailing a manuscript to yourself in the mail is not helpful--that sealed envelope will not substitute for registration in a court of law.
Each country establishes its own copyright laws. The United States has copyright relations with many of the nations of the world--although not all nations. Broadly speaking (and there are exceptions and rules), a foreigner from a country that is a treaty partner with the U.S. can apply for a U.S. copyright.
While at one time, publication was an important part of obtaining copyright in the U.S., subsequent laws have changed this. In addition, changes in copyright law have impacted on the length of term of protection.
In general (again, remember, there are exceptions), for any work created after 1/1/78, the term is the life of the author plus 70 years. In addition, works published before 1923 (where the copyright expired and was not renewed) are now in the public domain, meaning available for use by anyone.
For the period between 1923 to 1978, a variety of different terms of protection apply. We'll talk about this and "fair use" the next time we discuss copyright--in another week or so.